When we are under periods of stress the way that we breathe changes, and a new study shows this change could further impact our mental and emotional well-being.
There is a consistent link seen in people who seek out the help of a Counsellor between the stress response and the issues that they are being challenged by.
If, for example, our relationship with our partner is strained, there’s no doubt that is a stressful situation to be in.
Stress leads to increased emotionality as our body floods the emotional centres of our brain with blood and oxygen to help us escape a stressful situation (like being chased by a lion for example).
But, perhaps not surprisingly, this natural reaction could actually be making things worse, not better.
When we’re in the stress response zone (or the Red Zone as I call it) we also tend to shift our breathing to a more rapid, less-effective pattern, and researchers at the Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark have found this shift in our breathing could impact our mental health.
The researchers synthesized results from more than a dozen studies with rodent, monkey, and human brain imaging, and used it to propose a new computational model that explains how our breathing influences the brain’s expectations.
“What we found is that, across many different types of tasks and animals, brain rhythms are closely tied to the rhythm of our breath. We are more sensitive to the outside world when we are breathing in, whereas the brain tunes out more when we breathe out. This also aligns with how some extreme sports use breathing, for example, professional marksmen are trained to pull the trigger at the end of exhalation,” – Professor Micah Allen.
The study suggests that breathing is more than just something we do to stay alive, explains Micah Allen.
“It suggests that the brain and breathing are closely intertwined in a way that goes far beyond survival, to actually impact our emotions, our attention, and how we process the outside world.
“Our model suggests there is a common mechanism in the brain which links the rhythm of breathing to these events.”
Breathing can affect our mental health
Understanding how breathing shapes our brain, and by extension, our mood, thoughts, and behaviours, is an important goal in order to better prevent and treat mental illness.
“Difficulty breathing is associated with a very large increase in the risk for mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. We know that respiration, respiratory illness, and psychiatric disorders are closely linked. Our study raises the possibility that the next treatments for these disorders might be found in the development of new ways to realign the rhythms of the brain and body, rather than treating either in isolation,” explains Micah Allen.
Stabilizing our mind through breathing is a well-known and used tactic in many traditions such as yoga and meditation and having a think about how you could be a better breather could have significant positive impacts for you.